Brussels bemoans Russian strategy to weaken EU, backs down on sanctions threat

Brussels bemoans Russian strategy to weaken EU, backs down on sanctions threat

EU leaders rowed back from explicitly threatening Russia with sanctions on Friday, but said they would consider "all available options," if the bombing of Aleppo continues. EU President Donald Tusk said that leaders listed Russian "airspace violations, disinformation campaigns, cyber-attacks, interference in political processes in the Balkans and beyond" among the threats posed.

"Given these examples, it is clear that Russia's strategy is to weaken the EU," Tusk said after the summit meeting in Brussels ended on Friday morning. "We have a sober assessment of reality and no illusions. Increasing tensions with Russia is not our aim, we are simply reacting to steps taken by Russia."

'Inhuman bombardments'

In a watered-down statement, leaders said the EU "strongly condemns the attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia, on civilians in Aleppo." It urged an "immediate cessation of hostilities. The EU is considering all available options, should the current atrocities continue," it added, amending an earlier draft that threatened sanctions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the summit that the EU "cannot accept these inhuman bombardments. If this kind of violation continues, of course we will envisage all available measures in order to react to this," she told journalists.

Meeting with Putin

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have called for sanctions to remain on the table after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks on Wednesday night in Berlin.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg joined the condemnation of Russia, saying the alliance feared that a Russian aircraft carrier and other ships heading to Syria could be used to increase attacks on Aleppo. Moscow has agreed to an extended humanitarian pause in its Aleppo operations until Saturday.

At their next summit in December, leaders from the 28-member bloc are due to decide whether to renew sanctions over the Ukraine crisis for another six months.

The EU remains divided over policy in dealing with Russia. Countries such as Italy and Greece favor a policy of selective engagement to improve relations with a major economic partner and supplier of energy.